As we get older, it’s common to experience some cognitive decline like forgetting people’s names, losing track of time and other instances that we often chalk up to “senior moments.”
However, Mindy Bixby, DO, a neurologist at Scripps Clinic, says making a few lifestyle changes can help keep your brain healthy well into old age — and may prevent or slow the onset of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“I want to prevent people from needing to come see me,” says Dr. Bixby. “That’s my goal.”
To stay sharp in your senior years, follow the six pillars of brain health outlined below. Incorporating these tips can improve neurotransmitter health and produce dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine — which, in turn, can lead to a longer, healthier life.
The U.S. has one of the highest rates of autoimmune disease in the world, and it’s believed that regular consumption of processed food is a factor. But a diet based around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and quality proteins can be beneficial to brain health.
“Nutrition is extremely important to brain heath,” Dr. Bixby explains. “Picture what you choose to put in your mouth becoming part of you, and be thoughtful about what you’re doing to your body.”
Sleep is restorative. While you’re asleep, your brain is not inactive; it’s laying down memories and clearing out amyloids, a waste product left over from metabolic processes that in large amounts has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Good sleep hygiene is key: Remove devices and distractions from your sleeping space, limit exercise within two hours of bedtime, avoid big meals and excess water before bed and, if all else fails, choose organic melatonin, Sleepytime tea or other natural products over other sleep aids.
You’re probably aware that a poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking can harm your heart, lungs, kidneys and other parts of the body. But did you know the same lifestyle choices that impact your body can also affect your brain?
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity have all been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
“Over time, many medical conditions can be really hard on your brain health because your body can only tolerate so much,” says Dr. Bixby.
There are some risk factors for dementia, like genetics, that you can’t control. But you can lower your risk of cognitive decline by staying physically active; maintaining a healthy weight; quitting smoking; managing stress; and keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar in a healthy range.
Learning new things can prompt your brain to sprout new neurons. Dr. Bixby says this becomes especially important in retirement, when you should continue to be engaged somehow.
Social interaction, new relationships and stimulating conversations are integral to brain health, too.
“The social aspect of what happens when people feel heard and like they’re a part of other people’s lives is extremely important,” Dr. Bixby adds.
Get at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. Exercise increases oxygen to the brain, boosts brain waste disposal and stimulates your motor and sensory systems.
“If you’re exercising, you’re exercising your brain,” Dr. Bixby says. “If your brain is not getting oxygen from exercise and clearing this debris on a regular basis, you’re decreasing the possibility of fighting off disease and the aging process.”
Stress and its associated hormone cortisol can, over time, cause an inflammatory response that leads to the formation of free radicals that may damage normal brain functions, says Dr. Bixby. Develop tools to get through stressful moments, like breathing exercises, journaling or yoga.
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.